I found Nathan in his own corner of Instagram, and was instantly intrigued. His bio reads “A family of five galavanting about Mexico in a 1978 VW Bus. Full-time travelin’ types since 2008.” His squares are dusty captures of a life lived on the run — not away from anything, to be sure, but more toward everything. Toward crisp blue bodies of water and hammocks for everyone and space to run and time to explore. Does that make sense? It will after you read Nathan’s compelling interview.
He founded an online magazine dedicated to advising others who want to travel full-time — A Complete Guide to Perpetual Travel, as he calls it — and it’s wonderfully empowering and community-building. Go see. (But first, this tour around his family’s life!)
I’m so excited to share him with you. Welcome, Nathan!
Hi there. My name’s Nathan, and I was the kind of kid who did the math and realized that 18 years of being young and free, then 45 years of working every day all day long, only to get a few more free years at the end when you’re all old and shriveled up — remember, this is ten-year old me talking — didn’t seem like a great plan. I asked around and it turned out that most people agreed that it wasn’t exactly an ideal setup, but that’s just the way it was…
So, I gave in, got a job, quit, got another job, quit, and so on. Then one day while I was eating ramen noodles for the umpteenth time, probably on my sixth job that I hated before I was even 19 years old, I saw an ad for an art school in Pittsburgh. I figured if I had to trade my time for money to make it in this world, I might as well be drawing pictures.
It was while I was sitting around on the campus of this art school that I noticed a young lady looking at me through a window. I was shy, she was even more so. But I wrote a lot of poetry back then and she liked to read, so we sort of hit it off through all of that. It was a lovely autumn spent together as friends.
We went separate ways. Somehow I ended up with a house and a 40-hour a week job at a PBS station and a beautiful young son named Tristan who has gone through a ton of heartache in his life, and despite having a dreamer/hot-tempered dad, remains to this day the most grounded, even-tempered, likable person I’ve ever met.
Meanwhile, Renée, the girl I met in college, went off to backpack around Europe.
A few years went by and one day my phone started buzzing in my pocket. It was her voice on the other end. I dropped everything in my life immediately and we spent a lovely weekend together.
I had just returned from my first cross-country road trip. I was desperate to travel more, but the house, my son, my job…it was a big pile of responsibility that I knew I was tied to, but at the same time I was hearing these stories Renée was telling…hitchhiking from Spain to Amsterdam, visiting ancient churches in Prague…and I was still dreaming about the Rocky Mountains, the red hues of Utah, the pristine clear blues of Lake Tahoe.
I knew I had to make a plan. Renée again went on to live her life, moving out to Colorado, and I quit my job and moved to England. I started freelancing. I moved back to the US, and Tristan and I hopped into a big ol’ RV and started traveling the world.
Everything I wanted for my life had come true; every day was a new adventure, Tristan and I were seeing the world, I was his teacher, he was meeting new people, new types of people, climbing trees, writing stories. It was a magical life but I was still missing one thing.
A year into it all, I got an email. Renée found a blog I was writing back then and saw that I had recently been in Colorado, and wanted to know why I hadn’t come to see her.
So once again, I dropped everything. This time it was easier; I had practice. I sold that big RV ,and Tristan and I headed up to Colorado where we bought our 1978 Volkswagen Bus.
It took all of three months for me to convince Renée to jump in with us and do this whole traveling-around-the-world thing again. I remember thinking it took a really long time. Three months in the late autumn/early winter of the Rocky Mountains, living in a Bus, well, it’s cold!
But looking back, I can’t believe she did it at all.
Life then, and this was the autumn of 2009, was perfection. I had somehow created for myself, my son, and now Renée everything I’d ever wanted.
We hiked mountains and crossed state lines and explored small towns. We dreamed up where we might live one day, if we got bored of traveling. We slept in and got lost and broke down and fixed things and made things and then only six months into it all we made something pretty amazing together: a baby!
Well, we started the process anyway. A few months into the pregnancy we settled down in a beach house for the last trimester and Winter Erik was born. He was named for the first snow of the season, which fell on the day we brought him home from the hospital, and has grown up to be a sharp, imaginative, stubborn, hot-tempered little guy. I can’t imagine where that all came from.
We tossed Winter back into our VW Bus when he was four months old and went exploring for a place where we could feel comfortable enough slowing down again to make Tristan and Winter another little brother.
And so Wylder Reisen Swartz was born in the Smokey Mountains about a year and a half after his next oldest brother. His full name more or less means “to travel the black forest” and the corner of the Smokeys he was born in was called Black Mountain. Wylder is a sweetheart, he likes to rub his mama’s stomach and give out smooches (but he only has so many every day so get them in early!) and is the only one of the boys who doesn’t look like me. Which makes him the cutest.
Together, we’re a family of travelers, adventurers, and makers. We’re at our best when things are at their most difficult. Our days are spent together, always together, and though every day is not a happy-go-lucky romp in the wild, we practice patience and love as much as we can.
Our current home is a 1978 Champagne Edition Volkswagen Bus. That means it was made at the end of an era, one of the last runs of the classic hippie van/Scooby Doo van that Volkswagen produced. It’s an air-cooled, vintage piece of history, and though it requires a ton of maintenance and is always breaking down, we absolutely love her.
We don’t actually live in our Bus though. We live outside. The Bus is really small. It’s more like a tent with wheels, a place we can sleep and get from here to there. Most of our days are spent outside, whether it’s me working or the kids playing at a beach or us exploring the wherever we are.
We didn’t fall into it — I worked quite hard at making this all possible for us. I wouldn’t have been able to do it, though, if Tristan wasn’t on board, and later and especially now, if Renée wasn’t. I’m lucky to have such an adventurous woman in my life. We’ve broken down on dirt roads in the middle of Belize where it seemed like no one would ever come by, and we’d never be able to find help. She doesn’t panic. She gets nervous and more than a little worried, but she and I have learned to overcome whatever comes our way.
That approach to life has given us the ability to do things I don’t think everyone would look at as responsible, necessarily, but I want to teach my kids that responsibility is secondary to life.
That’s why we choose to live this way, because Renée and I both firmly believe that there is no guarantee as to what happens after this life, and that this life is an amazing gift. For all we know, we’re the only creatures in the entire universe who can do and think and be and achieve what humans can. So we want to live our lives as fully as possible and hopefully inspire our children to do so as well.
The only real downside to living like this is we don’t get to be around our friends and family as often as we’d like. But then again, our friends and family are spread all around the United States, so if we didn’t live like this, we would see some of them far less anyway.
The young boys wake up in the Bus rather early, usually before 6:00 am. They watch something like Curious George on our iPad while Renée and I convince ourselves it’s possible to get out of bed, yet again, before the sun is even up. I boil water, make some coffee, and head out to a camping chair to work.
Tristan is still asleep in his tent, or sometimes just his cot if it’s warm out. Renée gets the young boys dressed and fed and they’re sent off to wake up their older brother who spends the morning doing school stuff, like learning to code HTML and taking Spanish lessons.
Wylder still takes a nap around 1:00 pm every day, and Tristan and Winter get some alone time together. Winter absolutely loves his older brother, so this is like a slice of Disneyland for him on an every day basis. I finish up work and we’re off to explore wherever we are.
In the US, that’s typically a national park. We go hiking nearly every day and sometimes kayaking. The boys participate in the National Park Service’s Junior Ranger programs, which send them off on missions to learn more about nature. I’m a birder and love dendrology, so it all meshes perfectly into an afternoon of good times…until someone gets tired and so we all break down. At that point, we turn around, head home, and I’ll often make a campfire and Renée gets dinner ready and soon enough it’s time to head to bed to get refreshed to do it all again in the morning.
Here in Mexico, where we’ve been since January of this year, we don’t get out into nature as much. Most of our time is spent living and playing at the beach and walking into town for cheap Mexican food.
We have a general plan where we stay at places with WiFi/cell service from Monday through Thursday and try and get out into nature for long weekends…but there are no set rules or regulations, so if we like a place we might hang around for a month, or if we find ourselves somewhere rather boring we might drive a few hours every day until we find a new spot that scratches our itch.
As to how we choose where to stay, in the US I have a pretty solid method for this: pick a national park or national forest we haven’t been to yet, get onto Google Maps and search for Walmart and McDonalds. Now look for towns as far away from those search results as possible.
We love small towns that still have their own particular flavor and if a town doesn’t have the golden arches, you can typically bet it’s not going to have many chains at all.
In Mexico, we just keep going down the road. It’s so different here, we’re still learning how to find the best places. But we’ve got a map of spots people have recommended to us or we’ve read about, and that’s our general guide.
Tristan went to a Waldorf school for kindergarten, and that has informed much of our approach to teaching the kids. Waldorf is a type of schooling that focuses on letting kids grow at their own pace, eliminating television and video games, and giving kids incredibly simple toys — think sticks and pinecones and unshaped blocks of wood — to inspire them to learn on their own, to create and solve problems for themselves.
When we hit the road, T should have been in first grade. I spent my mornings teaching him to read, write, math…the basics. National Parks and old guys at RV parks and lessons learned on playgrounds filled in the rest.
The second year on the road, the first in our Bus, I didn’t teach him at all. It’s called unschooling and I wanted to give it a try. The idea there is that you just let the world be a natural teacher for your child. Some people love it. For Tristan though, he wants more scheduled curriculum. He’s gone to public school twice, too, once per each young brother as we’d spend around nine months in a spot while they were being cooked.
He loved it. I regret it. He really likes going to school like that, but I think it’s less than ideal. I admire all teachers and have nothing ill to say about the reality that is our school system in the US and in the world in general…but I know that when you’ve got 25 kids and one teacher, that means you have to cater to the middle-of-the-road. Kids who want to learn at a slower pace get left behind, and those who can grasp things more quickly are just wasting time waiting for someone else.
I know that Tristan is a bright kid who can really shine when he’s put to the test, and public school doesn’t test him. Still, he likes it. The social aspect, mostly, and he wants to go to high school, so we’re currently figuring out what that will look like.
The rest of us don’t want to settle down, but T has been at this longer than everyone and his time as a child is coming to a close so I really want him to have the experiences he wants, too. In places like Washington state, kids who are homeschooled can also go to public school part time, so that may strike the right balance.
As for the littles, they’re not really even supposed to be in school yet. Renée makes fun games when Winter expresses interest in learning how to write, do a little math, and read. Wylder adores his bigger brother and so tries to follow along. It’s the most beautiful thing to watch a child want to learn, and makes it more of just family time than school.
Renée and I agree that we will never put the little ones into any type of formal schooling. It’s just not what we want for them, and hopefully if they never experience it, they’ll never have that desire.
Raising kids is an experiment no matter how closely you follow the guide book or not, so we hope we’re doing a good job and don’t judge others as we don’t want to be judged ourselves.
Yep, the world is our backyard. But we do little projects every now and then to spruce the Bus up a bit. Tristan, Renée, and I painted the ceiling like that for something to do several years back. I’m currently tearing out the nasty old carpeting to put in wood floors and refacing our cabinetry. We add little things here and there, pinecones or prayer flags. They all come and go. Three boys and two adults are very hard on a vehicle, especially living in it, so nothing lasts long in our world.
We don’t focus as much on stuff as we do experiences, so it all works out.
I get itchy and bored and am unable to feel content if we stay anywhere for much longer than a few months. We lived in a vintage Airstream for three years of our travels, Renée’s mom lived with us then, too, traveling around all of us as a big ol’ multi-generational family.
That was about three times as much space and, frankly, I didn’t enjoy it as much. More space always equates to more stuff. And more stuff means more maintenance, more time working, and more time thinking about it all.
So, I wouldn’t add any more space, and I don’t want to live in a house. When we do settle down for Tristan to go to school or whatever becomes of that, we’ll live in as small a structure as I can find or build. I want my children to know the cold of winter and the heat of summer, the grass between their toes and sticks in their hair. I don’t want them to want to be comfortable. I don’t want them to think “Let’s go inside!”
Still, I wish we had room for my guitar. We also gave up our bicycles (the older three of us anyway) and we really enjoyed bike rides when we lived in the Airstream. I could figure out how to integrate all of that into the Bus, too, but for now we’re practicing living with as little as possible.
I hope I don’t sound snotty. I’m not ‘above’ anything, I don’t want to preach to anyone. This is just what we’ve found is best for us.
It’s funny how we look at things. We catch ourselves taking this life for granted all too often. The reason we came to Mexico was because we’d felt that we’d done just about everything we wanted to do in the US. Living in the Airstream was becoming a little too easy, too comfortable. So we went to the closest place with a foreign language, got back in the Bus, and the day we crossed the border into Baja California it was the first time I’d felt so alive, like when we first started traveling, or when Renée first hopped aboard.
We grew tired of Baja and though we’d originally planned to go back to the US, found ourselves on a ferry to MX’s mainland instead. The feeling came back. We recently went to Belize and got it all over again.
The desire for something new, a new place, new faces, new experiences…it’s like a drug and we are very much addicted to that feeling. I know not everyone feels that way, and there is something we’re missing out on with not having a fixed address and that type of community.
But on the other hand, everyone loves a waterfall, right? It’s moving, changing, powerful. Compare it to a stagnant pond and I think you can see what drives us.
Aside from this desire to just see change, new places, the other benefit of the way we live is that we are always together.
I don’t have to catch up on what the kids did with their day around the dinner table at night. I was there. First steps, first words, I taught Winter and Wylder to ride a bike, helped them learn how to swim. It’s a massive perk not necessarily related to traveling, but to being a freelancer, or working from home in general.
Whether travel is your cup of tea or not, I would urge everyone and every company to rethink the need for people to be at a certain place for a set number of hours. Work should be based on what gets done, on the productivity of it all, not simply on the idea that you need to go into an office all day to prove to your boss you’re worth the paycheck. That doesn’t apply, of course, to retail sales and food service or things that require you to be somewhere for the duration, but there are plenty of jobs that can translate. Being able to take an hour out of your morning to play with your kids or take them to the dentist or even just to unwind for a minute and watch a YouTube video or something, it makes for a happier workplace.
The idea of us all going off to jobs, too, that’s kind of new. Not all that many decades ago, everyone worked for themselves. Ten guys didn’t go into the blacksmith shop and report to Big Henry. If a town could support ten blacksmiths, then ten guys worked out of their home. It’s still like that here in Mexico. Families will run a little taco stand or corner store out of the front of their houses. Families also live together down here, an entire family of grandma and five brothers, their wives, too many nińos to keep track of, they’ll all live on the same block. There’s less of a need for daycare, because of the way people work, and the way they look at what it means to be a part of a family.
We’re doing our own small scale brand of that, I guess.
Like I said, my favorite part of this lifestyle is seeing all of their firsts. That I taught Tristan to read, Winter to ride a bike. That I’m not away from them all day. That someone else isn’t 50% of their day’s influence. Being together all the time can get annoying, too, of course, but it’s part of what I signed up for when I ordered them.
I don’t know that toddlers remember anything specific, per se, but I do believe that all of this is just sinking into their DNA. It will be in their bones and blood and the back of their minds forever. More than anything, I want them to know that it’s possible.
They can want to go to high school or become bankers or whatever, they can be as different to me as they’d like, and that’s fine. But whatever they grow up to be, whoever they become, I want them to know that whatever it is they’re scheming, “It’s possible!”
You’ve got to work hard at something in this life. It might as well be at the life itself.
I wish someone had told me that I could be a hobo. That it was a viable career choice.
Adults always told me, “Nathan, you could be the President, that’s what’s so great about this country! You can be anything you want.”
But that’s just something teachers and parents tell you until you’re about old enough to get a job, maybe middle school or high school. Then they tell you things like, “Skateboarding is not a job” and “Only 1% of players ever make it to the big leagues” and “Being an artist is fine when you’re young but…”
But you know what? People are professional skateboarders. And someone becomes that 1% and yes, artist can be a lifetime career. Someone, somewhere, is going to get to be these things. And some people want to be accountants and lawyers and doctors and they live fulfilling, happy lives doing it. But I also know that there are a lot of other people out there working jobs that they absolutely despise. I know it because I was one of them, my friends are or were.
I don’t regret anything, because everything that’s happened up to now has shaped me into what I am, where and who. I like all three of those things. But I remember these sorts of thoughts, dreading the morning alarm clock, being desperate for another week’s worth of time to fly by, sitting around Sunday evening in utter despair…
I don’t wish that for anyone and quite the opposite, I hope that everyone and anyone can figure out that no matter what, you’ve got to work for something. It might as well be for yourself. For your own happiness and your own life.
I always ask for different points of view, and I’m always extra grateful to those who bravely provide it. So thank you, Nathan! You gave me much to ponder, and I know you’ve inspired many readers out there.
I’m also super intrigued by his thoughts about traditional office life: “Work should be based on what gets done, on the productivity of it all, not simply on the idea that you need to go into an office all day to prove to your boss you’re worth the paycheck. That doesn’t apply, of course, to retail sales and food service or things that require you to be somewhere for the duration, but there are plenty of jobs that can translate. Being able to take an hour out of your morning to play with your kids or take them to the dentist or even just to unwind for a minute and watch a YouTube video or something, it makes for a happier workplace.” Cosign! Who’s with me?
P.S. – Take a peek at all the homes in my Living With Kids series here.